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The Homelessness Epidemic of Boulder

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Growing up in Boulder, homelessness seemed normal to me, as I generally would, and still do, see at least one person a day experiencing homelessness. It was only somewhat recently that I realized that the status and numbers of people living without homes in Boulder is not and should not be considered “normal”.

Much of this is due to the lack of affordable housing in Boulder. According to a Daily Camera article published in March of 2017, the average single family home price in 2016 was over $1 million. An affordability report released around the same time concluded with the simple statement, “The $150,000-or-below condo or townhome is becoming extinct”. Even I, a high school student who has yet to take a single finance course, know that these numbers are not promising.

According to these statistics, it is not surprising to then hear that Boulder has “the second largest homeless population in the (Denver) metro area” (Daily Camera).

Yet it’s not simply the high prices of housing in Boulder that perpetuates homelessness, but the fashion in which the city has dealt with the issue. The criminalization of homelessness in Boulder occurs at a much higher rate than elsewhere, only causing those experiencing homelessness here to have an extremely difficult time working their way out of the cycle. According to a report of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law’s Homeless Advocacy Policy Project, between the years of 2010 and 2014, the city issued over 1,700 tickets for “illegal camping”.

For a college town, thought to be extremely progressive, Boulder officials have had a less-than-liberal approach to homelessness. When tickets are issued to those experiencing homelessness, they are entered into the criminal justice system. In the words of Nantiya Ruan, a law professor at DU, “…by writing someone a ticket that they cannot pay, you are setting up a debtors’ prison and then they spend time in jail, and then they can’t get a job. It’s a perpetuation of the cycle of poverty.” (Daily Camera).

In addition to the detrimental effects criminalization has on individuals, the city as a whole is harmed by these practices. The aforementioned DU report used projections to predict that the costs of jailing due to homelessness in Boulder will reach nearly $1 million over the next four years (Daily Camera). That is $1 million of taxpayer money being spent to keep people in the criminal justice system.

Recently, fortunately, some have been recognizing this flaw. On June 20, 2017, the City of Boulder approved what they call the “Homelessness Strategy”. On their website, it lays out the six goals of this program:

  1. Expand Pathways to Permanent Housing and Retention
  2. Expand Access to Programs and Services to Reduce and Prevent Homelessness
  3. Support an Efficient and Effective Services System Based on Best Practice and Data Driven Results
  4. Support Access to a Continuum of Basic Services as Part of a Pathway to Self-Sufficiency and Stability
  5. Support Access to Public Information about Homelessness and Community Solutions
  6. Create Public Spaces that are Welcoming and Safe for Residents and Visitors

This plan is supposed to be completely implemented by the end of this year. Within these goals, the council lays out a few tangible way in which they intend to achieve them such as, “Partner with Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA) Keep Families Housed program.” (City of Boulder). However, when reading through the plan as a teen not educated or working in this specific area, the plan seems inaccessible and vague. For example, one of the bullet points listed beneath goal three is: “Implement real-time, integrated cross-system data to inform continuous service improvements and system adjustments through the Boulder County Connect Client Portal and report on outcomes.” I, personally, have no idea what this means in general nor in terms of what action is actually being taken in Boulder. I hope we will see more affordable housing as well as less criminalization of homelessness by the end of this year, due to this plan, but am unsure what many of these goals mean, how they are truly being implemented, and in what ways change will actually be seen.

Photograph taken on May 2011 by Farrish Carter

So what can we, high school students, actually tangibly do about the homelessness we see around us? Attention Homes, a Boulder organization designed to help youth in crisis, puts on various events throughout the year, and particularly at this time–as November is Homeless and Runaway Youth Awareness Month–, to raise both money and awareness to combat homelessness in Boulder. On the night of November 8th-9th this year is the annual Boulder Sleep Out, in which community members sleep outside, seeing what it’s like for themselves while raising consciousness and funds. In addition, throughout all of November, Attention Homes is collaborating with California Pizza Kitchen, meaning 20% of all purchases there will be donated. I encourage everyone to look at Attention Homes website to see other events and programs they can get involved in. Apart from organized events, volunteering at organizations such as EFAA and the Homeless Shelter, both located in North Boulder, can help immensely. Finally most importantly, treat those experiencing homelessness as they are: people. Those of us who have never experienced homelessness may not be able to understand or relate to this aspect of life, but it’s vital to keep in mind that, although yes this is a big issue that should be getting attention, there is much more to those experiencing homelessness than the fact that they are homeless.

The epidemic of homelessness in Boulder is larger than all of us. It is larger than even the city itself, and rides on the system of justice and allocation of resources in our country. However, that doesn’t mean that we can do nothing. We do have some power as high school students and it is vital that we use it to enact the change we see need for in our community if and when we are able.

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